Calvary Road Baptist Church


Romans 3.13-14


On July 3, 1988 the USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser outfitted with the Aegis combat system, was on patrol in the Persian Gulf when it fired two surface-to-air missiles and shot down an Iranian aircraft while responding to a distress call from a Pakistani merchant ship that claimed it was under fire from Iranian naval vessels.[1] The U. S. Navy ship, commanded by Captain Will Rogers III, had attempted to contact the unidentified aircraft on both the Civilian Air Distress Net and the Military Air Distress Net because the plane was flying directly toward the warship at more than 500 miles per hour. Failing to raise the airplane on the radio after repeated attempts, and then assuming hostile intent because of the current conflict environment and the nature of the aircraft flying from Iran being unknown, the ship’s captain decided to protect his men at all costs. Sadly, but unpredictably, the plane turned out to be a commercial airliner. Six hundred and fifty-five people were killed. Although a warship outfitted with an Aegis combat system has some of the most sophisticated instrumentation found in the world, failure to identify the airplane as a commercial airliner was primarily due to two factors: First, the plane was flying directly toward the ship, making it extremely difficult from its minimally exposed cross section to tell what it was from radar. Second, and this is perhaps most important, the plane either did not have or was not using its IFF transponder.

The IFF transponder is a signal broadcast device that sends out a coded message while the plane is flying that is capable of being intercepted and analyzed by other airplanes and by ground installations and by warships. First developed in World War Two to provide a measure of safety for allied aircraft detected on primitive radar devices, IFF devices are universally used on military and commercial civilian aircraft.[2] The initials of the IFF beacon stand for “Identification - Friendly or Foe.” In a war zone, or in a theater of operations where war might quickly erupt, such as the Persian Gulf, it is critical that airplanes have a functional IFF transponder. Otherwise, how will a naval warship recognize that an airplane flying directly toward it at over 500 miles per hour is not a threat to her safety and security?

Stepping back from a tragedy that occurred twenty-nine years ago, and bringing the focus of our attention to the present, do you realize that we who are Christians are also, after a fashion, patrolling a theater of operations? That’s right. Christians are soldiers of the cross, and our theater of operations is the human race so hostile to the plan and purpose of God. We are in hostile territory. And just as the IFF transponders that airplanes are equipped with, every human being is equipped with his IFF transponder. In the case of human beings, however, the IFF transponder happens to be verbal communications and speech patterns. Let me show you how the human IFF works to declare a person lost. Romans 3.13-14: 

13    Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:

14    Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. 

In these two verses the Apostle Paul presents four Old Testament statements describing the verbal communication pattern of the unsaved man regarding something easily identifiable to everyone: 


That is the first phrase in verse 13.

With the word “throat” translating the Greek word that we get larynx from, the word “open” translating a participle referring to something that was opened and now remains open, and the word “sepulchre” referring to an ordinary grave, let me describe the scene as a first-century Jewish person might understand it.

The custom in Paul’s day was for Jewish people to put a corpse in a stone casket for about a year. Then, after the flesh had been consumed by bugs and microbes, the casket would normally be opened up so that the bones could be removed and placed into a very small box, called an ossuary, slightly longer than the thigh bone and slightly wider than the skull. The large casket would be used again when the next family member died. A grave, then, would be a cave or a crypt in which there was room for the one large casket used for a full-sized corpse, and a number of smaller boxes, ossuaries, in which the remains of grandpa and Aunt Minnie, and the rest of the family who had gone on, would be stored.

Imagine, then, this sepulchre being opened. There would not necessarily be any horrible stench. There would only be the things left over from death. Ever been in a crypt? It’s not scary or horrible so much as it’s just dead. There is nothing of life in it.

Rather than describing something that is revolting or stomach turning, as so many commentators claim, I think Paul is doing something else when he describes the lost man’s throat. The lost man doesn’t necessarily say things that are revolting. He doesn’t always say things which nauseate people.

No. Paul’s point is that there is nothing connected to life in there. That which proceeds forth when a grave is opened is not horrifying or scary. It’s just dead. That which is communicated when lost men talk shows that the source of the communication is dead. Saved people, on the other hand, broadcast that which speaks of life. Saved people minister grace to the hearers, Ephesians 4.29: 

“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.”  


Notice the description of the tongue. The second phrase in verse 13 reads, 

“with their tongues they have used deceit.” 

“Deceit” referring to that which is treacherous or violates trust.[3] When you think about it, that which is used to ensnare and trap must be disguised and invisible to the intended victim, so in a sense, treachery is involved whenever a successful snare or trap is used. I told you about the animal that once crawled under the Church and died. To prevent that from happening again we had to get a trap. We can tell that it’s a trap, that it’s a device for snaring the animal, but the animal can’t tell. The critter is completely fooled by the apparent innocence of the device that uses bait to lure and entice him. Likewise, the tongue of an unsaved man is something of a camouflaged snare that is used to entrap others and hold them in bondage to sin. Invisible or concealed to a lost person, it is more easily detected by the spiritually mature believer.

Notice the destruction of the tongue, James 3.4-10: 

4  Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.

5  Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

6  And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

7  For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:

8  But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

9  Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. 

The child who is taught to say “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was taught error. People can be ruinously injured by the deceitfulness of the tongue, though grown-ups should be pretty much immune from taunts directed at them. Take the example of the young man who has sold his soul to the pursuit of pleasure and is a slave to drugs and liquor. If you ever ask him how things are going, he will almost always say something to the effect of, “Things are going great man. Just work and party, work and party.” There is only one problem with what he says. It’s not true. He is deceitful, whether he realizes it or not. And his false testimony about sin and its consequences will ensnare others who are foolish enough to believe it. So, “with their tongues they have used deceit.” 


Verse 13 concludes, “the poison of asps is under their lips.” 

There are two things here which closely follow on what Paul has just written:

First, the kind of snake referred to here. This word “asp” is often thought to refer to just any kind of poisonous snake. But the word refers to a specific kind of poisonous snake, the Egyptian cobra.[4] Folks, this kind of snake is incredibly poisonous. In Paul’s day, the only way someone bitten by such a snake could live was to immediately cut off the member bitten and hope he could control the bleeding enough to survive. If bitten on the hand, for example, immediately sever that hand, lest the poison enter the bloodstream and you die.

But just as importantly, notice the concealment of poison. Most poisonous snakes have their venom in a sack tucked up in the roof of the mouth. It’s located in such a way that when the snake strikes and sinks its fangs into flesh, the pressure created by biting the victim will squeeze the venom sack, literally injecting it into the victim through the fangs, very much like a hypodermic needle. But, of course, none of this, either the venom or the sack that it’s concealed in, can be seen by the onlooker. And how this is like a lost person’s speech. Under his lips is a poison that is just as deadly as the venom of an Egyptian cobra. And how does it kill? The same way venom does. Once it gets into your system, it goes straight to the heart. Venom gets into your system through the circulatory system, while man’s deadly philosophy gets into your system through the hearing. But with both the Egyptian cobra and the lost man, the poison comes from the mouth of the one inflicting the damage. Want to hear some of the poison? An example: A troubled young woman is being witnessed to at work by a strong and committed Christian. The Christian has told the young woman that she is a sinner in desperate need of a Savior and that the real solution to her “emotional” problems is a new life in Christ. But once the troubled young sinner gets home and talks to her next door neighbor and tells her about her problems and shares with her that there is a Christian at work telling her she needs to be saved, the neighbor who never before witnessed to her chimes in. Here’s where the snakebite comes. “Well you know, honey, that I’ve always said that religion is a fine thing. But you need to think twice before you listen to what a religious fanatic says. Why I remember one time. . . .” The cobra has struck. The venom has been injected into that troubled sinner’s system. She has been told, in a very subtle fashion, that her friendship with her neighbor will be jeopardized if she becomes one of those “fanatic” Christians. What the neighbor has done is tried to pull the troubled young woman away from any real consideration of Christ. I once asked a boy attending our Church what would happen if he trusted Christ as his Savior. His response was to tell me that if he came to Christ, he would lose his dad, his uncle, and his grandfather and grandmother. Somewhere along the line, that boy’s father struck like a cobra to warn his son off of any serious consideration of the claims of Christ. Sometimes the cobra strikes at Christians. Ever know of a Church member who used to participate in outreach faithfully but now mostly finds reasons, excuses actually, to stay at home? If I were a betting man, I would wager that someone said something that convinced a once faithful Christian that staying home from evangelism was okay. Little did that victim realize at the time that the cobra had just bitten and injected venom into the hearing that would eventually damage the heart. 


Verse 14: “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” 

From the more subtle descriptions of an unsaved man’s speech to the more obvious. Comparing his throat to an open sepulchre is just saying that there is nothing coming out that has life to it. Then he says that they are deceitful with their tongues. That is, not only is there nothing of life to their speech, but it can ensnare others. Then he concludes verse 13 by showing that the unsaved man’s speech is dangerous to others, that it’s venomous. From the subtle to the obvious.

Now we have the description that requires the least discernment to detect. It is the mouth that is full of cursing and bitterness. Understand that cursing does not refer to shouting profanity at people. Cursing is pronouncing judgment on others; it’s consigning them to Hellfire, it’s declaring that God has damned them or asking God to damn them. And bitterness refers to sharp and hurtful speech toward others.

A person whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness is no more unsaved than the lost person whose speech exhibits the first three characteristics we’ve looked at, but it’s so much more obvious that this person is unsaved. This is the dirty-mouthed person who blows off at others. This would be the guy who screams and yells at folks who don’t drive like he wants them to on the freeway. This might also be the man or woman who always says hurtful things about people, for no other reason except that they enjoy seeing others as miserable as they are. 

When an airplane is flying over warships and is not broadcasting with its IFF transponder the Navy immediately takes note of that airplane and assumes the worst. That is what happened on July 3, 1988. Human beings do not have the luxury of turning an IFF transponder on or off. Ours are pretty much always on. We are just about always broadcasting to others around us whether we are friendly or foe. If you are a Christian broadcasting-friendly, you will speak the truth in love; you will use gracious words. But if you are lost, if you are under the condemnation of sin, if God has not done a work of grace in your life to make you a new creature in Christ, your speech will communicate a different kind of message.

Your Christian IFF transponder is not infallible. Some lost people fool Christians into thinking they are believers. And some Christians speak in such a way as to fool the lost people around them into thinking they are lost, too. But generally speaking, your speech patterns will give you away. If you are lost your speech will betray the fact that you are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, for your throat is an open sepulchre. Because you do not know Christ, your wisdom is the wisdom of man. Therefore, even when you say things that seem to make perfectly good sense to you, and express what you believe to be sound logic and wisdom, it will ensnare and cause great harm to others. Why? Because your tongue is used to deceive and to spread the awful poison of secular humanism and other antichristian beliefs. And then if you cut loose with the cursing and bitter speech you have given yourself away because such talk is much more obviously inconsistent with Bible Christianity. You see, when God saves a man, He doesn’t only clean his heart, but He washes out his mouth as well.

How about it, my friend? Do these two verses speak to your heart? Recognize that a man’s speech does not make him saved or lost, but it does show whether he’s saved or lost. What does this passage show you? Does it show you that you are lost and in need of Christ? Or does it show you that you are saved and in need of some good spiritual oral hygiene?


[1] 2/11/2017

[2] 2/11/2017

[3] Bauer, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), page 256.

[4] Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1980), page 355.

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